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Tuition fees: the alternative to Browne

Once again the public debate on a hugely important and sensitive question is squeezed into a very narrow prism that wholly ignores the wider context which, if properly considered, would almost certainly produce quite different answers. Lord Browne’s review of university funding finally came down to certain highly restricted options: tuition fees were going to be raised (to the limit of what parliamentary and public opinion would bear, subject to further adjustment later as these constraints eased), with a few minor concessions on maintenance and fees loans and on increasing the repayment threshold – just enough it was hoped to squeeze this regressive measure through.   But there were wider options never considered.

Towards the end of the process (these things are very carefully stage-managed in Whitehall) even the graduate tax was ruled out of any final reckoning.   The Tories had already determined on a sharp push upward in student fees and were not going to be deflected – the only question was how much give was necessary to ram it through.   But a graduate tax too is only part of the landscape, not the only other option.

There are several alternative ways of funding higher education.   It can come from the Government (i.e. taxpayers), the universities themselves, a business levy, charges to students’ parents, or the students themselves.   All of these have an interest in the success of university education, and it’s reasonable that some permutation of funding liability should be allocated between them.   It also does not seem reasonable that any one of them should bear the brunt either wholly or disproportionately.

Government should make at least some contribution to ensure that bright pupils from poorer households are not locked out of equal opportunity by excessive up-front costs.   Universities, particularly the older ones which have inherited enormous endowment income over the centuries, should also contribute according to their means, or perhaps via a carousel system between them.   Business, which will derive its future leading personnel from universities, should be expected to pay a proportion of the costs for the recruitment of its future profit-drivers, just as it should also pay for the skill training of its manual employees.

Parents of university students, overwhelmingly middle class and disproportionately upper middle class, should also make some contribution, on a tapered scale above a certain income level to full payment at high levels.   The students themselves should also reasonably be expected to pay back some modest proportion of the extra increment of earning power that university education has accorded them.


  1. Jon Lansman says:

    John Denham, new Business Shadow spokesperson, has clarified the front bench policy:

    • We will look carefully at the recommendations of the Browne report.

    • But any reform proposal for student finance which relies on a significant increase in tuition fees, and which is based on the assumption of deep cuts in public funding to HE, raises serious concerns.

    • Labour’s approach to the reform of student finance will be guided by three key principles:

    o establishing a stable long-term footing for HE funding that enables our universities to play a key role in promoting knowledge, innovation and economic growth

    o avoiding an unfair and unsustainable increase in the burden of debt on lower and middle-income graduates

    o ensuring that graduate contributions are progressive, so that those who earn and can afford more end up paying more than those on lesser incomes

    • At this stage, there are five key questions that need to be asked of Lord Browne’s proposals.

    1. Would middle-income graduates be paying a fair share compared to high-income earners?

    2. Would high earners be debt-free much earlier than middle-income earners?

    3. What is the impact on off-balance sheet borrowing of Lord Browne’s proposals?

    4. Is there a differential impact on women? For example, are they more likely to be in debt for longer?

    5. What size of cut in university funding is assumed and does the increase in fees increase funding or just replace a cut?

  2. Peter Kenyon says:

    Buried under all the detail are the cases for progressive taxation, both personal and corporate, and equality of opportunity in education. Can we conceive of realising either while pussy-footing around taxation and private education?

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